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    a performance of St. Matthew Passion in a church

    A Novel Reimagines the Birth of Bach’s Passion

    James Runcie’s The Great Passion enlivens the story of the making of J. S. Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion.

    By Wade Bellesbach

    April 4, 2023
    • Michael Nacrelli

      Joe, I also need to check out Bach's Passion, but I make no apology for my love of Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers! "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" is wondrously transcendent.

    • JoeR

      A well written article. I am embarrassed to say up until a few days ago I was completely unaware of Bach’s Passion. Have I lived under a rock these many years? Possibly my choice of music which leaned towards The Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynner is the cause. Regardless, I am thankful to finally have “discovered” this haunting masterpiece. The book, while fiction lends a plausible back story. Thank you for your writings as well.

    Upon hearing the first performance of J. S. Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, a character in James Runcie’s The Great Passion concludes, “It would have been a good time to die.” The novel tells the story of the people whose lives became constellated around the creation of one of history’s great works of both music and theology, a story of loss, death, and hope.

    Historical fiction, even when done well, runs the risk of merely recounting great moments and events. This certainly cannot be said of Runcie’s narration. Although sensitive to historical nuance surrounding the composition of Bach’s Passion, Runcie’s prose discloses the power and possibility of art even in the very making of art. His story contends with how death gave life to a work of music so profound it is still sounding out the changes and chances of our own age. Transcending the limitations of historical narration, Runcie’s novel explores how music itself invites us to confront our fears of death and hopes for life.

    At this suspension between death and life, we are introduced to Stefan Silbermann, Runcie’s wise and attentive narrator. News of Bach’s death in 1750 returns an older Silbermann to cherished memories of 1726–27, of those iridescent months surrounding the creation of the Saint Matthew Passion. What follows is a searching and spiritual remembrance of his earlier life and friendship with “the great Cantor,” as he affectionately refers to Bach throughout the novel. Ultimately, it is through Stefan’s personal confrontation with death that we come to see how redemptive the weight and power of music can be.

    an orchestra playing St. Matthew Passion in a church

    Saint Matthew Passion performed by University Music choir and orchestra in St Ambrose Church, Dorset, 2018. Photography by Alwyn Ladell

    Stefan’s relationship with the great Cantor begins with a different loss. The sudden death of his mother in 1726 forces his father to send him from his family home in Freiberg to Leipzig. There Stefan will study with the master and learn to live with loss, because to nurse his wounds, his father suggests, is impious: “Unhappiness is a form of ingratitude.” Leipzig, however, is not ideally suited to an almost-orphan trying to make sense of the death of his mother and the loss of his childhood home. Learning the mysteries of music with the great Cantor provides Stefan with some initial understanding and comfort, but such study also entails enrollment at the town school. Ostensibly dedicated to a clean and honorable Lutheran education, it is a place of perpetual hunger, smelling of boiled cabbage and the embalmer, governed with a Stoic detachment, and preoccupied with the inscrutable will of God. Here Stefan endures all the miseries and frustrations of an adolescence common to boarding schools. There are unruly and uncouth boys, unthinking and thieving bullies, proud parents, and imperious teachers and clergy.

    Moments of humanity, however, do reveal themselves in Stefan’s early days, especially in the home of the Bach family. Although industrious and efficient, they are also warm and generous, perhaps even to a fault. There are so many visitors to the Bach household that the townspeople are given to calling it “the dovecote.” In response, Anna Magdalena, the Cantor’s wife and equal, retorts, “A full house is more entertaining than an empty one, don’t you think?” Of course, a full house is not without tension. Nothing is left unsaid for too long among family members; everyone “expected to be heard and couldn’t be precious about what anyone else knew or thought.” Nevertheless, should anyone find such an arrangement worthy of complaint, the Cantor is happy to remind his family that “‘without charity we are nothing, no more than a sounding brass or tinkling cymbal.’ And no one wants a tinkling cymbal, do they?”

    Bach’s music calls to a confrontation with sin, death, and loss – a confrontation to be surpassed only by the grace and mercy of God revealed in music.

    With the Bach family, Stefan comes to understand how intimately one might live music, as one lives faith. Trips to the forest where the children are meant to gather mushrooms may well end in a homily on the virtues of antiphony and singing Monteverdi’s Vespers. Personalities are talked about according to musical keys. Their interior and exterior lives, their relationships and unions, their fears and joys, are communicated in Musicis. “Perhaps some people are more at home when they play music than they are when they live their life,” the Cantor observes.

    In keeping with his demanding reputation and personality, the Cantor involves Stefan in his life and his work without delay. He brings him into music; he asks him how his own life might sound in music. The Cantor’s welcome is a calling Stefan cannot but respond to, an existence he can inhabit. A home. He is assured of companionship in the daily work and common life of the Bach family. He dines at their table and joins them for the much-anticipated music-making of the evenings. In these early days, he experiences a first and lasting love for Catharina Bach. And Anna Magdalena becomes as much a mentor in music to Stefan as she is a mother in friendship to him.

    Under the exacting watch of the Cantor, Stefan assists with the weekly composition, preparation, and rehearsal of the sacred music for Sunday services, especially the anticipated cantata. From the Cantor, he learns not only how one might listen with and speak music but how one might breathe it – how one might give his life over to its calling. “There’s blood and skin in all our instruments,” he says to the Cantor of his own organ-building family, but to lend his young and inexperienced voice to the musical demands of his teacher, to participate in an art that is certainly pressing upon the divine, is altogether too much for him. The Cantor’s response to such hesitancy and insecurity: “Work to make things simple.” And if that were not enough to intimidate a young student, a music, a theological gloss, from the master: “You are reflecting God’s gift to man, the bequest of his spirit. That is all you have to do. Work until it becomes effortless.” Bach, after all, signed his works with the words soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone).

    We learn from the Cantor that the demands of music also have special graces accompanying them. Music joins in with conversation to say and hear more of a life that is always being revealed through the mercy of the Creator. That music goes beyond what is said, thought, or felt is its privilege, power, and joy. Music’s powers are in its capacity to reveal: “‘We give music to any text that needs it,’ the Cantor said. ‘That is the joy of it, Monsieur Silbermann. A simple act of transposition, major to minor, or a change of key, and everything is different. It is like the bounty of God’s grace, always revealing itself in different ways.’” In a way that feels natural and unrehearsed, Runcie lets Bach expound on the idea that music is the language of God and his creatures. It gives a deeper orientation to their lives. “Perhaps that is why we play music. It is easier than conversation, don’t you think? Or rather, it is a different kind of conversation,” the Cantor remarks. “We listen to music as survivors,” because it is in such listening that we experience its grace.

    Leipzig, perhaps, has a different sound from all this grace. In a town largely populated with seemingly unremarkable Lutherans, some even with Pietist rhythms, there is no end of religious commentary to be heard. Impatient with such behavior, the Cantor says, “It seems we are all making sermons these days, but don’t waste time telling me.” To be sure, some of it displays genuine insight, some of it is a peculiar kindness, and some of it is meant to cover the tedium of daily existence and hardship. Much of it, however, reveals deeper anxieties with the ways of God and his world. The aged rector of the Saint Thomas Church is more inclined to ruminate on what Cicero might have to say concerning the divine will than he is to consider his parishioners’ lives. The master of the boarding school is more often given to pontificating on time’s awful ticking away than he is to confronting his own anxiety and insecurity, let alone caring for his students. Nevertheless, if the limitations and circumstances of life are such that faith might waver, it is still the case, the Cantor observes, that “with music, the notes are always there.”

    a performance of St. Matthew Passion in a church

    But are the notes truly to be found, let alone heard, when death interrupts without discrimination or care? How does one sing in the strange land of loss? In the seasons leading up to the celebrated Holy Week of 1727, Stefan, the Bach family, and the town are confronted with an unrelenting succession of illness and loss. In the span of a few months, Leipzig sees the death of Bach’s three-year-old daughter, the death of two parents, and a disturbing public execution. It seems impossible for anyone to find the resolve to take up the lives that have been willed for them during these dark periods. But it is in this season that the Cantor’s Passion is willed into life, its glorious profundity dredged up from a profound sorrow.

    Contending with deaths and loss, Leipzig is finally given a story to inhabit in the great Cantor’s Passion. His music becomes theirs. His Passion is now their narrative. It becomes the home where their own lives are transformed by the death of Jesus Christ. It is through the Cantor’s music that they are related again to their town, their humanity, and their faith. His music calls them to a confrontation, a confrontation with their own sin, death, and loss. But it is a confrontation to be surpassed only by the grace and mercy of God revealed in music. Witnessing such transformation, Stefan says, “Love and sorrow came together in the same word, passion.

    “We answer them in music,” the Cantor says of death and life, and the answer of music resounds throughout Runcie’s novel. Whether an old friend to Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion or newly acquainted with its beauty, the reader will find in Runcie’s telling of its creation a rewarding spiritual meditation. In telling a story of the particularities of history that occasioned Bach’s Passion, Runcie reveals the glory music renders unto God, a peculiar glory that unites its participants to the story of God’s love for humanity in the death of his son, Jesus Christ.

    To a young and confused boy, Bach says, “We all need a sense of ‘home’ … because if we haven’t got one, or we’ve lost it, then how can we know where to find it again?” If the answer may be heard in music, perhaps Runcie’s novel will help us discover a home in the grace of God through the great Passion of the Cantor of Leipzig.

    Contributed By WadeBellesbach Wade Bellesbach

    Wade Bellesbach is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England serving parishes in Scotland.

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